Southern Florida part two: 20th-22nd February 2020   Leave a comment

In my last post I explained that I was visiting Florida on my way to a trip to Guyana and Suriname with the primary intention of seeing my lifer Florida Scrub-jay and Manatee. The secondary purpose (apart from having an enjoyable time birding) was to add a number of species to my American Birding Association (ABA) list.

On the 19th I visited Jonathon Dickinson State Park where I saw the jay and Lake Kissimmee where I saw a wide range of species including a few that were additions to my ABA list.

Heading back south to West Palm Beach I stopped at Fort Pierce due to tiredness but heard at the motel that manatees could be seen nearby.

Whereas I wish to see as many of the world’s birds as possible, for the mammals I set my sights somewhat lower. In general I’m happy to see just one (or a few) of the different ‘types’ of mammal rather than every species, so at least one pangolin, racoon, genet or lemming for example, but one whole ‘type’ of mammals that I had failed to see anywhere were the Sirenians. The Order Sirenia comprises of two Families: Dugonidae (two species – Dugong and the extinct Steller’s Sea Cow) and Trichechidae (three species – West Indian Manatee, Amazonian Manatee and West African Manatee) in spite of spending quite a bit of time within the range of all five extant species I had never seen any.

 

I was out early and down at the marina at Fort Pierce looking for the sirenians. There was a Manatee centre, which opened at 10:00, signs saying ‘don’t feed the Manatees’ but no actual Manatees. Local dog walkers, fishermen and boatmen all said the same ‘they’re normally here but I haven’t seen any for a couple of days, probably too hot for them’.

 

One guy said the best place was at the pier on the outer banks, so I returned to Seaway Drive and crossed the bridge to the barrier islands, seeing a fairly tame Great Egret in the process.

 

Here I was at the actual ocean rather than the intracoastal waterway but there were no Manatees, just a lot of very tame Turnstones. The open ocean is in fact behind me (but there were no Turnstones in that direction).

 

Known in America as Ruddy Turnstone (because there is another species Black Turnstone on the Pacific coast), Turnstones are a bit of an enigma, found along shorelines and familiar to birders all over the world in the non-breeding season, they breed only in small areas of the high arctic, places that few people ever get to.

 

I pulled in as I re-crossed the bridge as I had seen two dots in the distance. They proved to be Magnificent Frigatebirds, another ABA area tick.

 

Not taken on this trip, but here’s a pair of Magnificent Frigatebirds taken in the Caribbean in 2017.

 

By the time I got back to the Manatee centre it was 10:00 and it was open. The lady there said that because it was so hot the Manatees would have moved out into the intracoastal waterway and the best way to see them was to join a boat trip which departed at 10:30.

 

Nice boat trip, lots of cormorants, a few shorebirds, White Ibis (above) and herons …

 

… and of course lots of Brown Pelicans.

 

I hadn’t realised that pelicans were that dangerous!

 

We had good views of Bottle-nosed Dolphins but no Manatees.

 

So now it was time to head down to West Palm Beach where I found Manatee Lagoon sheltering behind the local power station.

 

The warm water outflow from the power station attracts hundreds of them during the winter, but not today due to the unseasonal high temperatures which were being measured in 80s F not the expected mid 60s (that an increase from 18 C to 28 C for everybody who doesn’t live in the USA, Palau, Cayman Is, Belize or the Bahamas).  Apparently there were four there yesterday, which explains why I said earlier that I regretted my decision to head north after seeing the scrub-jays yesterday as there would have been time to drive south to West Palm Beach see the Manatees and get to Lake Kissimmee in time for the boat trip.

 

I did get to see a number of Barracuda and Tarpon, huge fish that were clearly visible from the observation deck, I was told Manatees might swim by just off the viewing platform, but I was there for a couple of hours and saw nothing. I left and crossed the bridge to the outer banks and headed for John D McArthur Beach State Park (that’s a hell of a long name for a park). I’d hoped to find vantage points where I could scan the lagoon but it was all dense mangroves with few gaps. I managed to see a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher but little else. I returned to Manatee Lagoon in the hope that as the day cooled they might return but I arrived at 1605 to find they had closed five minutes earlier.

 

I had to be in Miami the following morning, so with a profound sense of disappointment I joined the I-95 and headed south. Soon the traffic built up and the traffic slowed. In spite of there being six lanes progress alternated between fast and very slow. I have driven in twenty-four of the fifty states, including in the cities of New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but have never seen such driving in the USA as I as encountered that afternoon. There were regular heavy showers but that didn’t deter some from driving at 80mph weaving in and out of the six lanes to gain a slight advantage. My guide the following day said ‘you have to realise that in Miami you’re not in the USA, you’re in Latin America’! (this photo is of the highways around Miami Airport taken from the plane as I left Miami and not necessarily of the I-95).

 

Rather than try and find target species by navigating the complex intersections of Miami’s highways I had booked a tour with Nature is Awesome guide Angel Abreu, Miami is full of introduced species and probably has (along with Hawaii) the highest number of introduced species in the world. One I was interested in seeing was Spot-breasted Oriole, a species I saw in Costa Rica in 2017 but not of course within the ABA area. This species at least looks like it belongs in the USA …

 

… unlike the Mitred Parakeet of southern South America. I suppose the UK equivalent would be comparing Little Owl to Rose-ringed Parakeet the former looks like it belongs but the latter doesn’t, even if both were introduced.

 

A bird that occurs in the northern Caribbean but in the States can only be found in parts of Miami and through the Florida Keys is White-crowned Pigeon. I thought we would have to search mangrove forests for them but here were a few sitting on wires in a suburban area.

 

The immature bird on the left can be identified by its grey not white cap.

 

Speaking of mangroves we went on to an area of dense mangroves where we tried but failed to see Mangrove Cuckoo (but I have seen quite a few in the Caribbean and Yucatan Mexico).

 

One bird we did see in the mangroves was Eastern Phoebe, either an early migrant or a wintering bird.

 

We did come across quite a few Yellow-crowned Night Herons.

 

We get Black-crowned Night Herons in Europe and they occasionally occur in the UK but Yellow-crowned but as far as I know has not been recorded in the Western Palearctic except for once or twice in the Azores.

 

1st year Yellow-crowned Night Herons are quite unlike the adults but of course have a similar dumpy shape.

 

We passed a rubbish tip on the way to the coast with a huge cloud of Turkey Vultures above it. It was clear that there was a continuous stream of them arriving from the south, migrating up from their wintering grounds via the Caribbean islands.

 

There were plenty of Turkey Vultures in the trees as well.

 

Once we reached Biscayne Bay we took a walk along the shore but soon we had to retreat back to the cars due to rain associated with a fast moving cold front. The sky quickly turned dark and a number of large columns of migrating Turkey Vultures appeared, their migration no doubt interrupted by the weather.

 

By using a wider field of view you can see how huge these columns or ‘kettles’ were.

 

Once the heavy rain had stopped we visited some lakes where we saw the introduced Green Iguana …

 

… and the native American Crocodile.

 

Other lakes held Wood Storks, Blue-winged Teal and American Coot. There is a single drake Green-winged Teal in the background.

 

Most of these ducks are Green-winged Teal. They are treated as a separate species in the UK from our abundant Eurasian Teal, but not so in the ABA area because they follow the Clements Checklist rather than the one produced by the IOC. Thing is they are, at least in males quite distinctive and although a number are seen each winter in the UK and they often remain into the spring there is been little or no evidence of hybridisation. On the far right of the photo is a Mottled Duck, a close relative of Mallard but with both sexes looking (almost) the same.

 

This pair of Wood Storks were a fine sight, seen close by due to the shielding provided by the vegetation. I could watch them probing in the mud with bills open ready to snap shut on some unsuspecting prey.

 

I’ve no idea what this beautiful dragonfly is, so if anyone can enlighten me contact me directly or via the comments below.

 

We finally returned to suburbia and beautiful big houses along the Miami’s many canals, we failed to see the target munias and parrots …

 

… but we did see the localised Bronzed Cowbird in a supermarket carpark. This species is only found in the Gulf States and along the Mexican border in the ABA area, although is common further south.

 

The dark clouds of the storm soon passed and blue skies returned. There were plenty of widespread Nearctic birds around, as well as the Florida specials, like this Loggerhead Shrike. The trip had been a great success for the birds but it still looked that I would be leaving Florida without my second lifer – the Manatee. However it was Angel to the rescue as he took me to a place where there was a fresh water outflow out into the salt water channels …

 

… and there to my delight were a couple of Manatees. Ok, perhaps I’d have got a better view of them at West Palm Beach Manatee Centre where you can look straight down on them, but beggars can’t be choosers.

 

In fact if I play with another image and remove the green glare by reducing the colour saturation to zero then the image isn’t too bad. Of course I was delighted to get this last minute reprieve.

 

I had a few hours on the 22nd before I flew to Georgetown in Guyana and Angel suggested I visit Key Biscayne, an island to the south-east of Miami at the north of Biscayne Bay connected to the mainland by a bridge.  When I arrived at dawn it was raining but that soon cleared. This early in the year I hadn’t expected passerine migration but that’s just what I got, it was classic ‘fall’ conditions after all (I mean classic conditions for a fall-out of migrants, not that it was like autumn!). The bird in the photo is an introduced Egyptian Goose. I hadn’t realised that they and domestic type Muscovy Ducks would be common all over the city.

 

Most of the warblers I had seen so far could be considered winter visitors, but as the rain eased the park was full of passage warblers daring about from tree to tree and steadily making their way north. As is always the case in a ‘fall’ of migrants they had all gone within the hour. Palm Warblers were the commonest with perhaps 200 seen …

 

… I also saw about 100 of the delightful Parula Warbler (above) and small numbers of Myrtle Warbler (formerly Yellow-rumped Warbler until it was re-split into Myrtle, Audubon’s and Goldman’s), the lovely Black-and-white Warbler (nicknamed the ‘humbug warbler’ back home), Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart and perhaps best of all – the stonking Yellow-throated Warbler.

 

With the migrants moving on I headed for the nearby beach. looking for shorebirds, gulls and terns.

 

One of the first birds I saw was this Fish Crow. I had seen many crows whilst driving over the last few days but I was unsure if they were the largely coastal Fish Crow or the very widespread American Crow. This bird was making the characteristic nasal ‘cah’ so there was no doubt of its identity.

 

There were quite a few waders/shorebirds on the beach, (Brits say waders, Americans shorebirds, but there are waders that don’t wade and plenty of other birds that aren’t waders that do, similarly not all shorebirds are found on the shore and plenty of birds that aren’t shorebirds are). This is a winter plumaged Sanderling, like Turnstone it can be found on the shorelines of most of the world during the non-breeding season but only breeds in a small area in the very far north.

 

The commonest wader on the beach was Semi-palmated Plover, a close relative of our Ringed Plover. Differences in face pattern and the small ‘semi-palmations between just two of the toes are hard to pick out and as far as I know all UK records of this species have been first located by its very different call.

 

With the Semi-P Plovers were a small numbers of the delightful and much rarer Piping Plover.

 

Also with the plovers was this ‘peep’. In the field the legs looked greenish and due to that and the very small size, I presumed it was a Least Sandpiper, although the legs were nowhere near as yellow as the ones I saw on Lake Kissimmee. If I’ve got this wrong please let me know in the comments.

 

Also seen were was a number of Wilson’s Plovers (foreground), their large bills making them easy to identify.

 

In the ABA area this species is confined largely to shorelines from the Carolinas to Texas.

 

Of course there were gulls on the beach. Always tricky to age and identify this was a good opportunity to photograph some of the American species starting with a 1st winter American Herring Gull, the diagnostic all-black tail can be seen clearly …

 

… and can also be seen in this photo. This species is most easily identified in first year plumage and nearly all the UK records are of first years. I’m surprised the AOU continues to lump this with European Herring Gull when genetic analysis clearly shows it to be more closely related (and possibly conspecific with) Vega Gull of eastern Siberia, rather than European Herring Gull.

 

A bigger surprise was the numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. A common breeder and wintering species in northern Europe (a lake near us has at least 2000 coming to roost in winter). I knew that a few, perhaps Greenland breeders, wintered in eastern North America but I hadn’t expected to see five or more in one place. This of course is in full adult plumage.

 

This appears to be a 3rd winter Lesser Black-backed (right) with an 1st winter American Herring Gull.

 

Another 3rd winter with two 1st winter American Herring Gulls showing the lack white tips to the primaries in some birds of this age.

 

Ring-billed Gull, (a Common Gull sized species) was common as well. This species wasn’t recorded in the UK until 1973, once ID criteria were widely known the number recorded annually exploded and it was soon dropped of the official rarity list. However by the start of the ‘naughties’ UK numbers sharply decreased and you’re no longer likely to just bump into one in the course of routine birding

 

In this phot there is (right to left at the back) an adult LBBG, two Laughing Gulls, an abundant species along the east coast, adult American Herring Gull and a rather small ‘large gull’ who’s identity I’m not sure of but could be a 2nd winter LBBG. In the foreground are a flock of Royal Terns, recently split from their African counterpart (which has now been renamed West African Crested Tern).

 

Among the Royal Terns was one that was colour ringed (thanks to Martin Reid of Texas who noticed the colour ring) and I sent the details off to the USGS who administer the bird ringing/banding scheme. I got this rather nice ‘certificate of achievement’ which showed that it was ringed as a pullus in Virginia in 2018. I’m afraid I couldn’t find a way of converting the pdf they sent me to a jpg for this post so I ended up doing it the old fashioned way – printing it and then photographing the print, hence the slightly lopsided and unevenly lit appearance).

 

Well that was the end of a very enjoyable few days in Florida with almost all targets under the belt. I caught the flight to Georgetown, Guyana in the afternoon and arrived that evening.

 

So let’s end the photos with a one of the best birds seen on that final morning, a lovely breeding plumage male Piping Plover.

 

However I have one final comment, this is taken from my notes written at the time:

 Miami has the reputation as one of the least friendly airports in the world. Having taken off your belt and shoes, emptied your pockets, placed all your stuff on the scanner conveyer, to be shouted at ‘did I give you permission to move?’ is downright rude and unnecessary. I’ve travelled through many hundred airports in something like 130 countries and have only seen that low level of service in the most remote parts of Russia.

Although I’ve only birded in Florida twice, I’ve passed through Miami airport a number of times on route to or from the Neotropics and have always felt that customer service is rock bottom. I have said that this aggressive attitude wouldn’t stop me visiting Florida, but it certainly means that I would route a visit to the Neotropics via some other hub like Madrid.

 

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